It can be a bit of a shock when you notice your hearing is muffled! It happens to me occasionally and I find myself anxiously wondering if my age is catching up with me.
The good news is that in many cases it doesn’t mean a fault with your hearing. Luckily, the effect can usually be resolved by simply clearing your ears out.
Before you start reaching for the q-tips, stop! To avoid damaging our delicate auditory system, you must learn the correct techniques. Read on to find out how to clear your ears the right way.
Symptoms of a Clogged Ear
Symptoms of a clogged ear can vary in severity depending on the cause. Most often, you will experience a feeling of fullness or pressure in your ears.
This can come along with difficulty hearing, pain, a sound like wind or popping inside the ear or the sensation of liquid within the ear. (source)
Why Do Your Ears Feel Clogged?
Your nose and ears are linked by tubes called the eustachian tubes. These tubes open and close to regulate pressure between your middle ear space and the outside air.
Many things can interfere with the function of these tubes, e.g. accumulation of earwax, trapped water or nasal congestion.
When your eustachian tubes are unable to open and close properly, the pressure system becomes unbalanced, leading to the “clogged” sensation. (source)
What Causes Clogged Ears?
The right method for clearing your ears will depend on what exactly is causing the blockage. Sometimes the reason is obvious – e.g. ears feeling blocked after a flight or as part of a sinus infection.
However, it’s often hard to work out exactly what’s going on with your ears behind the scenes, especially if you don’t have any other symptoms. In these cases it’s best to have it checked out by a doctor.
I’m going to explain some of the more common causes for blocked ears and some tips for each case. I hope these will guide you in the right direction and help alleviate your clogged ears.
Buildup of Earwax
Every human produces earwax or cerumen. It is designed to protect the ear from bacteria, insects, dirt and water. (source)
Earwax is made up of dead skin cells, hair and secretions from the ceruminous and sebaceous glands in the ear canal. (source)
Earwax usually self-regulates – the ear canal cleans itself in a conveyer belt system. Debris and dead cells are pushed outwards and removed. (source)
However, if you are having difficulty hearing, you may have an excessive accumulation of earwax. This is more common in men than women and those with hearing aids but it can affect anyone at any stage in life.
As I’ve already mentioned, your ears are connected to your nose and also your sinuses. This means that cold, flu or sinus infection affects your ears as well as your respiratory system.
Mucus accumulation in the nasal passage can block the eustachian tubes causing clogged ears.
Allergies such as hay fever or exposure to environmental irritants can have the same effect.
Treating the underlying condition will not only improve your cold and flu symptoms but also relieve your clogged ears in this case. (source)
Changes in Pressure
Pressure is an important factor in the proper functioning of your ears. If external air pressure changes quickly, it can cause the eustachian tubes to malfunction.
The most obvious example is the rapid ascent and descent during a plane trip. It can also happen in elevators of tall buildings and when travelling at altitude.
This type of clogged ear usually resolves within a few hours.
We’ve discussed how an infection in your sinuses or nasal passage can spell trouble for your ears. The ears themselves are also at risk of infection.
If your ear is sensitive to the touch and you have pain inside, it’s quite likely you have an ear infection. You may also notice redness, heat and swelling.
Ear infections are most common in young children but they can occur in adults too, especially if you’re a swimmer.
Ear infections must be treated with an antibiotic to kill the bacteria which are causing the problem. This can be in the form of an ear drop or tablets. You will need to see your doctor for a prescription. (source)
It’s not just wax and mucus that can block our ears. Plain old water can cause problems too.
Many of us use earplugs to prevent this at the swimming pool, but we can also experience trapped water while taking a bath or shower.
Usually the water flows out of your ear naturally but sometimes it can enter too deep and you need to manually remove it. There are a few different ways to do this which I’ll elaborate on later.
This scenario mostly applies to children but it can happen to adults occasionally when an insect or piece of debris becomes lodged in the ear.
The best thing to do in this case is have the object removed by a doctor. If you try to remove it without specialised tools, you could do further damage. It’s also likely that the object will break apart and you will leave some behind.
Even if it’s not too bothersome to begin with, wax will begin to surround the object, eventually blocking the canal. You only get one set of ears so it’s better to take care of the situation sooner rather than later. (source)
How to Clear Your Ears the Right Way
1. “Pop” Your Ears
You have most likely heard of or experienced ear “popping”, especially after a flight. The popping sensation is a result of the eustachian tubes opening, allowing pressure to equalize.
There are many ways to manually pop your ears. Swallowing and movement of the jaw is linked to the eustachian tubes.
Chewing gum increases saliva production which in turn causes swallowing. Yawning can also provide some relief.
Another technique with a long history is the valsalva maneuver. (source)
This video explains it well:
2. Home Remedies for Ear Wax
If you have a buildup of earwax, you can create an effective remedy with ingredients from your cupboard.
The key is to use a warm liquid to soften the wax. Oils blend well with the waxy consistency of cerumen. Abrasive substances such as hydrogen peroxide and vinegar can break down the wax.
For an olive oil treatment, heat the oil very slightly by resting a cup of oil in warm water for a few minutes. Lie on your side with the relevant ear facing upwards and apply a few drops into the ear.
Stay like this for 5 minutes, letting the oil penetrate deep into the ear.Put a ball of cotton wool over your ear and turn onto your other side. Repeat the process. The oil and softened wax will drip out onto the cotton ball.
You can use exactly the same method with warm water.
If this doesn’t give the desired results, you can try a few drops of a mixture of equal parts apple cider vinegar and isopropyl alcohol or just 3% hydrogen peroxide.
If you are using vinegar or hydrogen peroxide, make sure to remove all of the mixture after the treatment as leaving a residue can irritate the ear. You can rinse the ear out with a little alcohol.
Don’t use vinegar or hydrogen peroxide more than once a day for three days or you can damage the area and increase risk of infection. (source)
3. Steam it Out
Steam is a great way to clear your respiratory system and your ears too. The heat can melt wax and the water droplets thin out any mucus in the sinuses or nasal passage.
You have a few different options for ears blocked from nasal congestion. It can be as simple as taking a hot shower and inhaling deeply, or you can create a specialised facial steam basin.
Personally, I find the facial steam very effective. I like to add a few drops of eucalyptus oil for an antiseptic effect. All you need to do is fill a basin with hot water, hold your head over it and cover your head and the basin with a towel.
Inhale the steam for about 15 minutes, refilling with hot water as needed. You should notice a big improvement if congestion is indeed the cause of your ear troubles.
Another way to introduce moisture is to hold a warm, moist washcloth to your face or use a humidifier.
4. Saline Rinse
Another way to introduce moisture into the nasal tubes is to use a neti pot or saline spray. Saline is a neutral salt water solution which doesn’t cause irritation.
Neti pots can be a bit daunting if you’ve never used one before, but the results are worth it especially if you’re suffering from a stubborn cold or flu.
If the neti pot is too much for you, a simple nasal spray will give similar results.
5. Remove Trapped Water
Introducing water can be great for ears clogged from mucus, but what if water is the source of the problem? If you have trapped water in your ear, the best way to remove it is to let gravity do its job.
Lie or sleep on your side with the affected ear facing downwards and the issue will usually resolve overnight.
If you need a quicker fix, you can try using a blow dryer on low heat 6 or so inches away from your ear. Be careful not to burn your ear.
Rinsing the ear with a few drops of alcohol can also help remove water.
6. Over-the-Counter Medications
Home remedies are great, but there are times when we need something a little stronger.
Especially if you are suffering from allergies or congested sinuses, it can be difficult to get adequate relief without treating the underlying condition.
Decongestant pills and steroid nasal sprays are great for cold and flu, whereas antihistamines are best for allergies.
However, be careful – decongestant pills can interact with other medicines and health conditions such as high blood pressure so ask your pharmacist or doctor if it’s safe for you.
Nasal decongestant sprays must never be used for more than three days or they can cause rebound congestion – simply put, your body adapts to the drug and you end up more blocked up than when you started.
7. Professional Ear Syringing
If you have a buildup of wax that you’re unable to shift at home, a professional ear syringing is the best solution.
Don’t try this at home as you need specialised skills and tools. The process involves pointing the tip of a syringe at the edge of the ear wax lump and spraying water. When the wax is loosened, it can be removed with a medical tweezers.
What Not to Do
Hopefully you already know that cotton earbuds or q-tips are a no-no when it comes to clearing your ears.
When my friend told me the story of his rush to the after hours doctor after a piece of the cotton became lodged deep inside his ear, it made me shudder! I don’t know how he did it as the cotton is pretty tightly attached to the stick. Anyway, I don’t ever want to find out!
That’s not all. Cotton buds push wax deeper into the ear canal rather than removing it and if you go too deep you can permanently damage your eardrum. If you must use them, stick to your outer ear.
If you have a perforated eardrum or ear infection, you shouldn’t apply any liquid into your ear. That rules out most of the treatments above. In these cases, you need to see a doctor.
If you are thinking of trying ear candling – I don’t recommend it. It’s an alternative remedy using a candle with one end lit and the other end placed in the ear.
The FDA has stated that ear candling is “dangerous to health when used in the dosage or manner, or with the frequency or duration, prescribed, recommended, or suggested in the labeling thereof”. (source)
If you have an ear infection, don’t try to treat it at home, instead, see your doctor. If your symptoms are very severe or last for more than two weeks, you should also have it checked out.
Some other warning signs which mean it’s time to see a professional include swelling, fever, head, face or ear pain that doesn’t go away with painkillers.
I hope you have found a solution to your clogged ears in this article. Sometimes it’s a case of trial and error if you’re not sure of the cause but for most mild symptoms these remedies will work.
Don’t forget to throw out your cotton buds, now that you know how to clear your ears the right way!